Borrowing, Stealing, and Building Upon Other People’s Writing Ideas
From epic romances to fantastical adventures, stories have been captivating audiences for centuries, and they have been inspiring writers (and other artists) for just as long.
There is a longstanding tradition among storytellers of re-imagining or expanding the greatest legends, myths, and fairy tales ever told, from the Greek classics to last summer’s blockbuster films.
Certainly, many derivative works are frowned upon. You can find lists of authors who do not allow (and pursue legal action against) stories written in their worlds. You can find reviews that call such stories rip-offs or refer to authors as hacks who have done nothing more than steal someone else’s writing ideas.
But you can also find some impressive and respectable derivative works in films, novels, and television. In fact, many derivative works are embraced, beloved, and achieve critical and commercial success, plus massive fan followings.
So, when is it acceptable to use other people’s writing ideas? Why do some of these stories get heavily criticized while others are widely celebrated?
Once Upon a Story…
There are many sources of inspiration for storytellers. Some writers rely on their own life experiences while others rip stories from the headlines. Existing stories, both true and fictional, have always had a heavy influence on the tales we tell and retell. How many variations of Little Red Riding Hood have been written? How many fictional movies have been set during World War II? Let’s take a look at the different techniques writers use to tell stories that are built on other stories.
Plenty of writing ideas are culled from great tales that have been told throughout history. Some of these have been converted into formulas that writers can use as storytelling guidelines.
In 1929, Joseph Campbell told the world about the monomyth (or hero’s journey), a universal pattern in storytelling that he found across cultures and throughout history. Writers turned the pattern into a formula, but perhaps nobody did so as effectively or famously as George Lucas, who used it to write Star Wars.
From the three-act structure to the hero’s journey, formulas have been criticized as making stories dull and predictable, yet they have also been credited with providing writers with a framework in which to create.
Historical fiction takes factual events from true stories of the past and overlays them with made-up characters or plots.
In James Cameron’s film, Titanic, two fictional characters fall in love on the historic ship that sank into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean back in 1912. Countless novels, short stories, poems, movies, television shows, and video games have taken a bite out of history and used it as the setting for their stories.
While this practice is widely accepted as legitimate, it’s worth noting that in 2011 China banned time travel stories because they retell history untruthfully (for the record, I think this is a violation of free speech, which is a basic human right). There is an argument to be made about the dangers of retelling history incorrectly (take the holocaust deniers, for example) and a much stronger argument to made about making art that examines history. Often, the truth is not found in the accuracy of a story’s plot but in the emotional reality that a story conveys.
Fan fiction is a favorite pastime for hobby writers who are loyal fans to their favorite franchises. Google “fan fiction” and you’ll find loads of stories set in the worlds of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Twilight — all critically and commercially successful science fiction and fantasy franchises. But that’s not all. Fans are also writing fiction from TV shows like Bones, Glee, and 80s nighttime soap Dynasty (yes, Dynasty! I couldn’t believe it either).
Some authors strictly prohibit writers from publishing material set in the worlds they’ve created (although they certainly can’t stop you from writing stories in your notebook). They feel these works will negatively impact the integrity of their stories or compromise them in some way. Other creators either look the other way or encourage fans to play in their worlds. The television show Lost spewed a veritable onslaught of fan fiction and artwork, and the showrunners enjoyed the homages all the way to the bank. This relationship between creators and fans proved to be mutually beneficial. Lost became a worldwide phenomenon and one of the most-talked-about shows in history.
Generally speaking, writing fan fiction is not the best path to becoming a respectable or published author. The work is copyrighted by someone else, so you can’t publish a book or short story and get paid for it (there may be some exceptions, as with contests or other programs by the few authors who are extremely supportive of fan fiction). I think fan fiction is actually a good training ground for young or new writers. It’s an ideal place to practice storytelling; all the elements are provided, so amateur writers can focus on specific aspects of their work, such as characters or plot. And who knows? Maybe someday you’ll be hired as an official writer for your favorite franchise (it happened to J.J. Abrams, who got to write and direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
In 2010, Tim Burton brought us Alice in Wonderland (3-D). This film told the story of a 20-something Alice revisiting Wonderland, so it’s essentially a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s original Alice stories. In their 1951 animated film, Disney took Carroll’s work to the screen, combining elements from various stories and poems that Carroll had written to create a timeless classic that secured Carroll’s heroine a permanent place in our collective, cultural mythology.
This is basically fan fiction breeding fan fiction, but we categorize it differently because Lewis Carroll’s works are all in the public domain, which means anyone can take them and do whatever they want with them. You too can write an Alice story, publish it, and be safe from copyright infringement or intellectual property lawsuits.
When we take our writing ideas from the public domain, the work is generally referred to (not as fan fiction, but) as a re-imagining, re-purposing, retelling, or recycled story. Why are stories based on public domain works viewed and treated so differently from fan fiction? In these projects, writers are using material that is decades (or centuries) old, and the new work basically keeps the old work alive and makes it accessible to future generations.
Where Do You Get Your Writing Ideas?
All around us, there are stories being told and retold, revised and re-imagined, stretched and skewed. Today, we have such easy access to stories (they’re all right at our fingertips) that it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by our favorite works. Consciously or unconsciously, many of our writing ideas come from other writers. The only question that remains is this: where do you think you get your writing ideas?